Love it or hate it, social media has become such a big part of life in recent years that it now affects all of us. Even if we’re not directly involved on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, we’ve all heard of it. Employers know that while it can offer business opportunities, it can also have a negative impact in workplaces.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called in to investigate an employee’s behaviour on Facebook (both in work and out of work). It’s surprising how many people simply don’t realise that what they say about their employers and colleagues can be accessed by anyone, and even more surprising how many times I’ve heard the words ‘it’s an invasion of privacy’ uttered in defence. How can it be an invasion of privacy when Facebook statuses and general social media content can be accessed by more or less anyone from around the word? The answer is it’s not. If you put it out there sweetie, don’t be surprised when it bites you on the nose.
A recent tribunal case dealing with the issue recently caught my eye. Generally the use and misuse of social media tends to be associated with younger employees, but in this case it wasn’t. The employee in question was the head teacher of a leading all-girls’ independent school. Mr Routledge was 50 years-old at the time, and was suspended amid concerns over his conduct with pupils on Facebook. He was later dismissed, but the finding of the employment tribunal was that his dismissal was unfair.
In May 2011 two school trustees, Robbie and Nicola Locke, expressed concerns over his communication with pupils on Facebook, particularly after they discovered that a page had been set up by the pupils called ‘The Bernie Routledge Appreciation Society’ (BRAS). Oh dear! Teenage girls at work; middle-aged Mr Routledge was probably rather flattered. He certainly used the page to communicate with pupils over two days in 2009.
The Shrewsbury tribunal found that while the contact through Facebook had been “unwise”, it had not been inappropriate. The tribunal considered that Mr Routledge’s dismissal had been partly triggered by this threat to suspend a staff member, who was also a family friend of Robbie Locke. He had raised concerns over her alleged involvement in pressuring staff to complete inspection questionnaires dishonestly. It was also revealed that the trustees didn’t like Mr Routledge’s style of teaching ‘wearing pink socks and a Hawaiian T-shirt’ but neither reason amounted to a case for dismissal.
Mr Routledge couldn’t control the creation of the BRAS page on Facebook and could have communicated with the pupils on the page a lot more than he had done. The tribunal found that this was not the real reason why the trustees decided to dismiss the headmaster; they used it as an excuse.
Many employers prefer their employees not to use the internet for personal use during working hours at all. A fair rule, but if you don’t have this requirement set out in writing it can be easy for your employees to claim that they weren’t aware of this expectation and abuse their freedom to surf the net at all hours of the day.
One would hope that the temptation to allow the world to know the precise details of our lives could be overcome – it’s certain unwise to say too much. However, knowing when your employees are crossing the social-media line can be difficult to ascertain if you don’t have a social media policy in place. A social media policy is fairly simple to put together but can help protect you on all sorts of levels. If you’d like help drafting or introducing one into your organisation, don’t hesitate to give us a call.
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